Unpacking Wharton’s Library

From The Los Angeles Review of Books:

IN 1984, George Ramsden, a 30-year-old British bookseller who had never read anything by Edith Wharton, bought her personal library for $80,000. He kept the books in a room above his bookshop where he would invite select visitors to view them by asking if they wanted to come up and see “Edith.” When he finally sold the library (for $2.5 million) to The Mount — the Wharton museum in Massachusetts — he negotiated the right to accompany it across the Atlantic to set up the display himself. He wept as he unpacked the books, demanded solitude as he arranged them, and took a long time to finish the job.

People get weird about libraries, or, to put it another way, libraries seem to accrue values beyond use and exchange. So what does a library mean?

This is the question at the heart of Sheila Liming’s new book, What a Library Means to a Woman. She strives to answer by analyzing the specific library collected by Edith Wharton and what it meant to Wharton herself, her contemporaries, her heirs, and even to the odd custodians and passionate scholars who have guarded and exploited it.

To look for the meaning, in the fullest sense, of a specific material object or set of objects is an inquiry that escapes the purview of any one academic discipline. Accordingly, Liming relies on a dizzying number of research methods and information sources: personal memoir and biographical detail, close readings of Wharton’s fiction and analyses of the annotations she made in the books she read, the history of interior design and the economic data of the book trade, literary theory and the sociology of culture, personal interviews and institutional history. But “multidisciplinary” is a pallid word for this book. It is thinking guided by the object of inquiry itself. It is literary scholarship keyed to a question so specific that it takes on at times the aura of a novel — the concluding chapter about George Ramsden felt like a chapter from a detective story, for example — and, for the same reason, it achieves at other times the general significance of a philosophical meditation.

Over the last seven years, Liming conducted research at The Mount, and while there, she had a chance to observe the reaction of visitors to the sight of Wharton’s books:

Sometimes an allusive remark would serve to express a visitor’s disdain about the library “not being worth” the money that had been reportedly spent on it; others, meanwhile, would bombard their guide (or me) with questions that circled back to discussions of cost and worth: How much does a first-edition Ulysses cost, anyway? Did Wharton have all of her books custom bound or just the expensive ones? I came to see these forms of scrutiny as inspired by the space of the library itself, with its railings and its climate control and its overt physical enforcements. At the same time, I also came to see them as tied to a very specific kind of contemporary illiteracy: most of us in the twenty-first century no longer live with and among books, so we struggle when faced with estimations of their worth. […] [V]isitors to The Mount sense that Wharton’s library has value, but are hard pressed when asked to conceive of its value in terms that defy the logic of monetary worth or simple cost.

What this “illiteracy” blocks, Liming suggests, is the recognition that a personal library is not just a collection of commodities that happen to be books, but a kind of intellectual casing, shell, or home.

. . . .

Liming shows that Wharton’s book-buying choices reveal predilections unusual in a woman of her time: “[U]pper-class women during Wharton’s time (and throughout subsequent generations) were primed for success in social intercourse and received training in subjects that might prove beneficial to their social, rather than their intellectual, development,” but Wharton purchased and read an unusual number of foreign-language books, as well as an unusual number of histories. (Liming cleverly determines this by comparing the ratio of genres on Wharton’s shelves to the ratio of genres published in her day.) Wharton’s development of her book collection gave her the training needed to make a significant contribution to literature, and to be well read in a way atypical of the gendered expectations of her day.

She also used her personal library to establish the social networks that demonstrated her literary eminence and that continue to be associated with her fame ever since. Perhaps her most notable friendship was with the novelist Henry James. And it began as a friendship between readers rather than writers. As Liming recounts:

[Wharton and James] who had nothing to say to each other fifteen years earlier went on to describe themselves as being inseparable, spurred by conversations that centered mostly on the reading of books. Reading, in fact, figured more prominently in their conversations than writing: “I always tried to keep my own work out of his way, and once accused him of ferreting it out and reading it just to annoy me,” Wharton explains.

A library can establish — as it did for Wharton — the possibility of relationship with other people. Like a home, it can be both a shelter and a meeting place. And not just for the one who collected it.

Link to the rest at The Los Angeles Review of Books

Given their digital nature, one can only imagine what what a future author with the appropriate level of savoir faire will be able to do with a rudimentary understanding of statistical analysis.

Add such knowledge to the ability to persuade Amazon to part the digital curtains just a bit in the interest of understanding the reading habits and patterns of a now-deceased great woman/man. (Perhaps the consent of the heirs might be required to help Amazon feel a bit more at ease.)

Which books did the deceased finish and which were abandoned before reaching the end? What does an analysis of the last ten pages before the deceased electronically closed it reveal about the nature of the decedent?

On a word-per-reading-minute basis, which books were read the fastest? The slowest? Did certain combinations of words cause the reader to stop, then go back to reread the language just preceding those combination? If so, what does that behavior reveal about the decedent’s state of mind at that point in his/her life?

If the will of the deceased requires the executor of the estate to cause all electronic reading records of the deceased to be destroyed, will Amazon comply?

1 thought on “Unpacking Wharton’s Library”

  1. This article goes into one of my Story folders along with this essay from the NYTimes.

    Thanks…

    I Was a Teenage Illiterate
    https://www.nytimes.com/2010/02/28/books/review/Schine-t.html

    [quote]
    Imagine the satisfaction, the exhilaration when, not long after, I stood as a newlywed surveying my husband’s bookcase. It reached from one wall to the other, from floor to ceiling. It had been culled and collected by a person of know­ledge and taste, a product of Columbia’s core curriculum, and . . . it was arranged alphabetically. I started at the upper left hand corner (Jane Austen! J. R. Ackerley!) and worked my way to the lower right (Waugh! Wodehouse! Woolf!). I got to read “Huckleberry Finn” for the first time when I was 35 years old. And when I eventually moved on to a different partner, there waiting for me was a new bookcase full of other books. I read “My Antonia” for the first time last month. That is a kind of grace.
    [/quote]

    I have a character that marries for the guy’s library. Reads it, then moves on to the next.

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